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Jamaica is almost as famous for its fiery Scotch bonnet peppers (which are rated as hotter than most habaneros) as it is for Reggae music and sports. Rarely will you find a Jamaican cooking without some of this pepper. Most often used on jerk chicken or pork, peppered shrimp, peppered steak and patties (a meat-filled pie), Scotch bonnet is the pepper of choice among Caribbean nationals. But for most visitors, especially those unfamiliar with this pungent chile, the strength of the Scotch bonnet is a shock.
The Scotch bonnet's history has been traced to Central and South America; however, there is no concrete proof as to where the chile pepper was first cultivated. Although frequently confused with the habanero, the Scotch bonnet or Jamaican Hot is definitely not the same as its stout cousin. So how do you know a Scotch bonnet pepper? The mature pepper measures between 1 1/2 and 2 inches in diameter. The color of the immature pepper is green, but the mature Scotch bonnet has an attractive range of colors: bright yellow, orange or red. One of the defining features of this type of pepper is its sweet aroma and unique flavor. In fact, the Scotch bonnet was the first Caribbean hot pepper to be known by a specific name in the export market.
As you can see at left, as early as 1767 the chile was named "Bonnet or Goat Pepper," the name "goat" resulting from its unique aroma, which was said to resemble "the odour of the he-goat." The other peppers illustrated are fat pork pepper, bird pepper, cherry pepper, and Negroe pepper.
The heat rating of the Scotch bonnet is said to be in the range of 150,000 to 325,000 Scoville Heat Units. Now that's hot!
The Scotch bonnet pepper (Capsicum chinense Jacq.) is one of Jamaica's major agricultural exports. The pepper strives in almost any of the country's fourteen parishes, because of the tropical climate in which the plant grows best. However, the country's producers are rarely able to meet the high demand for the product locally or internationally. Jamaican Scotch bonnet pepper is normally sold fresh, but there are also many by-products available such as jerk sauce, mash (both wet and dry) and escoveitch sauce.
Scotch bonnet graded according to quality of the product. Grade A (or Grade 1) is better than Grade B (or Grade 2). A Grade A Scotch bonnet is expected to:
- have a cup and saucer shape or look like a Scottish man's bonnet (tam)
- have four or five lobes
- be 1.5 inches wide
- have a stalk no longer than 1 1/4 inches long
- be without blemishes on the skin
- be free of chemical residue
Farm sizes range from large, well-established operations to the small peasant farmers' plots, many less than half an acre. For farmers, the quality of their seeds is crucial as the best seeds produce the best peppers. If you buy seedlings, be sure to get them from a reputable farm. Building your own nursery to get your own seedlings can be costly and time consuming, but rewarding. (Keep in mind that the nursery should not be established near other peppers, Irish potatoes or tomatoes because they are all susceptible to many of the same diseases.) After about six weeks, when the seedlings are ready for transplanting to the fields, they are prepared by a week of increasing amounts of sun exposure, a process known as hardening off. The ideal cultivation site for the Scotch bonnet pepper is well drained sandy/loamy type soil with full sunlight. For best results, seedlings are transplanted in the evening. Be sure to supply the seedlings with enough water; without adequate water, the plants will not strive and the yield will be poor. The best type of irrigation for Scotch bonnets in Jamaica is drip irrigation. Fertilization and strict weed and pest control are important; the plants are especially vulnerable to a number of pests and plant diseases like pepper budworm, mites, crickets, and aphids.
The peppers are harvested about 12 weeks after the seedlings are planted. To determine if a pepper is ready for picking, examine the stalk where it is attached to the pepper. If there is a clear line between the stalk and the pepper it's ready. For best results the mature fruit should be harvested while the color is still green or yellowing is barely present.
To minimize rotting, Scotch bonnet is picked early in the morning or late afternoon when it is cooler. Farmers also avoid picking the fruit when it is raining in order to reduce the likelihood of spoilage. Although it is best to harvest the fruit under the above conditions, under the right circumstances they can remain intact up to five days after picking.
Jamaicans tend to preserve Scotch bonnet peppers by making a pepper sauce with vinegar, onions and carrots. The fruit can also be preserved, especially for export, by dehydration. When dried, the pepper maintains its strength and aroma but the shelf life is extended.